As monetary and toothpaste supplies dwindle, and the dirty-to-clean clothing ratio begin to resemble that of Gulliver and the Lilliputians, (in that order) you know that the time is tick-tick-ticking towards the end of your trip. Whether it was six days, six weeks or even six months, what once was the great unknown now litters your backpack with tiny slips of paper, your mind with snippets of a language you might just go home and study, and scads upon scads of digitally perfect “I’ll crop that out later” photos you can’t wait to show your friends.
Several unscientifically-conducted studies indicate that the more fun and interesting stuff your friends and family have in their hands while you prattle on about the smallest doorway and the oddest smell, and the most incredible night of your life which involved losing your shoes and who knows what else, the more time they will give you before feigning a headache or gallbladder attack. Clearly, clever souvenir selection (which is French for I went and you didn’t, nyah nyah) is of utmost importance.
Buy gifts that speak to your experience on the trip
Rather than hastily purchasing a zampoña (pan flute) or charango (tiny ukulele-type guitar) for your tone-deaf cousin, or a mask for your easily nightmared nephew, or even a t-shirt for your business casual boyfriend, why not treat your friends and family to a few unexpected goodies that will show the true flavor of your trip?
Buy gifts that can be consumed
Skip the tourist market, the craft market, even the market market, and head straight to your host country’s Stop ‘n Shop or Piggly Wiggly; the supermarket. Supermarket souvenirs—those tasty morsels sandwiched between the saltines and mayonnaise that are mysteriously present in nearly every country—make a great gift.
Sure, the supermarket, it’s great place to buy a gift for that special someone. But not all foreign foodstuffs are made the same. There are those that will make your friends’ mouths’ water, those that will make them recoil, and those that will make them rub their Mr. Magoo-glasses with their untucked shirttail as they ask themselves “am I seeing this right?”
As your trip draws to a close, you’ll want to budget some time in the local supermarket to make sure you have scoured every shelf for items falling into the following categories: tasty, curious, funny food, it’s called what? (R-rated), it’s called what?(G-rated) and Engrish, while leaving room in your luggage for supplies for post vacation welcome-back party you’ll throw for yourself.
These are the mouth-watering items, the foods and drinks that are not an acquired taste, and that you didn’t have to be there in order to understand their deliciousness. A Ph.D in cultural appreciation is not required, and no special implements are necessary to enjoy them. These include nibbles like Belgian chocolate or Italian artichoke salad, a delicious honey brewed beer (which can travel surprisingly well, if wrapped correctly, and by correctly I mean in all the plastic bags you have amassed in your travels), or dulce de leche or the local variant all around Latin America (save a bag or two for this, you don’t want to have a derrame (spill). Hot sauce is another winner, especially if your friends like a little zing to their food, and the famous Vietnamese Sriracha brand even comes in a plastic squeeze-bottle.
Here are foods whose contents are eyebrow raisers where you’re from. Any meat product that is not typically eaten in your country is fair game, so perhaps you’d like to stock up on the Swedish fermented herring called surströmming.
Or maybe even some (vegetarian or traditional) Scottish haggis. There’s also the famous British food called mushy peas, which is sure to bring a smile to most American faces. Sadly, you’ll probably have to leave the squid behind, as it’s not vacuum packed.
These gifts are best given to friends with a sense of adventure and a flexible palate, or those who host quirky tapas parties and like to get a giggle out of the participants.
It’s called what (R- rated)?
Here are items which have names that will make us tilt our heads to the side and say, what?! Most of these are puerile –styled humor, and are quite self-explanatory as to why you’d buy them. You know which of your friends would enjoy them, and I encourage you to purchase liberally and distribute accordingly. I know someone who worked for a while in Japan making sure that the suggested names for his company’s products didn’t run afoul of English-speaker sensibilities. But he was just one man in one country, and it’s a tremendous responsibility. Lucky for us, he didn’t take the fun out of all of it.
It’s called what (G rated)?
Included here are items that make you scratch your head not so much because of the contents, but because of what the label says. A candy bar that proclaims “it’s not for girls” or a Czech breakfast cereal called “Miss fit,” are two fine examples. Perhaps less travel-safe is the unbelievable “this is not butter,” which one can only imagine transgresses the laws of intellectual property, and potentially those of good taste.
These items have been strangely translated or just strangely written. They range from “coconut juice with meat” to the Japanese poetry-style label which leaves most of us just plain confused. (For more Engrish related to food, signs, t-shirts and anything else you can imagine, visit www.engrish.com).
Go for a big event, instead. Another option, instead of bringing specific souvenirs back for individuals is to bring a selection and throw a little party. Bring back all the goodies you enjoyed while in Brazil, including the pão de queijo (cheesy bread) mix and some guaraná (unofficial national soda) throw in some MPB (musica popular do Brasil), and you’ve got yourself a party.
Whip up some home-made caipirinhas with the cachaça (Brazilian sugar
cane alcohol) you brought, and you’ve got a captive audience for hours.
Follow the rules
Whatever you choose to bring, pack it well, and remember that TSA wants liquids in your checked baggage, or at least not in your carry-on. Keep clear of running afoul of the Department of Agriculture’s rules, and California’s standards especially. Nothing that could harbor bugs; no dairy, no non-vacuum sealed meat, no fresh vegetables or fruits. We all know someone who has smuggled in just one tomate de arbol in her purse, but really, do you want to end your trip with a stern talking-to and a hefty fine from the USDA? In these cases you’ll just have to take a picture and add it to your slide show.
Closer to home
As the glee from the gift-giving and photo showing fades, and you have to resume normal life, you may consider that what we have on offer in grocery stores at home can be somewhat dull. May I suggest you look again? Sure, there’s the “ethnic aisle” with its Pocky and Pretz and other Japanese snacks, or the canned/jarred Greek fishroe paste taramosalata and even yucca flour on offer. But since these are from other countries, they almost seem like cheating. Look high and low in your supermarket and you’re sure to find beauties such as the following:
The ubiquitous Spam
Or the less common Meatless Wham.
Or maybe even some spray pancake batter.
It seems to me that these would make great hostess gifts for your next couchsurfing adventure.